Can Someone Else’s Comment Land You in Court?

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I rarely ever delete comments, unless they are hateful, disrespectful or spam.

But, I recently found myself editing or deleting a small handful of comments not for any of the above reasons, but because I was concerned that if I published them “as is,” they’d risk landing me in court.

These comments shared detailed stories about people and businesses whom the commenters felt had done them wrong.

They named names and made claims.

If the claims were 100% true, verifiable and told the full story, they’d very likely have been legally defensible. Meaning, neither the person sharing them, nor the blog publishing them, would be liable (not always, but probably) for damages.

Problem is, as a blogger, I don’t know the true story.

I don’t know both sides, nor can I easily verify the facts. Nor should it be my job to do so. But, when I hit publish, especially if the comment is about a non-public figure, there is an argument that I become part of the chain of representations or misrepresentations. And, as part of that chain, if the claims are false and the person who’s being slammed or their business suffers harm, then I may be on the hook to make them whole, along with the commenter to who told the harmful lie.

Not a slam-dunk case by any means, and there’s more to it than I’ve shared above.

But it’s an argument.

And, I don’t want to undertake the burden of having to fight that fight.

In the comments I’ve mentioned, I made edits to remove the names, then published them and emailed the commenters privately to explain why I made the edits. They were fine with that, understanding my position.

But, looking forward, as the blogosphere and social media, in general, mature, I think it’d be a good idea for all of us to understand the potential impact and “legal import” of the content we not only create ourselves, but allow to be published on our blogs and beyond.

Curious what your thoughts are on this?

Share away in the comments…

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40 responses

40 responses to “Can Someone Else’s Comment Land You in Court?”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Fields and HiroBoga, Jessica Zambarano. Jessica Zambarano said: Would you rather manage your social media or spend a day in court? – http://ow.ly/3bd4w TRT @jonathanfields Thx! […]

  2. Deirdre Reid says:

    I think you handled those comments wisely, plus you turned them into teachable moments. Bloggers (and those who blog on behalf of organizations) have entered into public scenarios where only trained journalists operated before. We have to be aware of copyright, disclosure, defamation, anti-trust, confidentiality, libel and probably more. Lots to learn!

  3. Unfortunately, I think it kinda falls under “guilt by association”. Although, you may be able to get an attorney to write a tricky disclaimer absolving yourself from all that other people believe to be true is purely their opinion and not yours. My husband tells me to stop using my real name or his other favorite, shut up and stop talking about people, lol. For me, I’d let it fly, even if it means guilt by association, I still believe in the fallacy of “Free Speech”.

  4. Farnoosh says:

    Jonathan, how very interesting that you write about this topic, which my husband and I have been discussing back and forth. So I happen to edit comments if there is glaring grammar mistake or spelling errors (gasp); I just cannot for the life of me publish those errors. If I wish to edit the comment – sometimes it’s been PAGES long! – I email the commenter privately as well or if I wish to remove all the irrelevant links (now and again, I allow relevant useful links), then I also email the commenter and let them know. However, I have not been in your position and I would encourage us to be super careful because the battle of going to court will drain anyone and everyone and take away unnecessary energy from our pursuits. I wonder if we can find or create a standard set of guidelines that could be generally accepted among bloggers and also speak correctly where our rights are concerned…..just thinking out loud. Thanks for brings this to surface.

  5. John Fauver says:

    Great post! You clearly understand the way of our litigious society. And it’s not just the laws of the country you’re writing/posting/publishing/hosting from that you need to be aware. With the global reach of any comment on any blog, we have to be aware of what a comment in one place could mean for another society in another place. As a small business owner, I have to take that under consideration and develop a policy or plan to address this kind of oversight. Great… more administrivia for a one-person shop. LOL

  6. You have to be yourself and if you weren’t comfortable, well, that is all there is. Generally speaking, no one really wants to hear this sort of talk because it is negative and as you point out, unverifiable.

    If we wouldn’t speak this way at a party, why do it on someone else’s blog?

    Of course, bad things really do happen and it hurts. Individually we each have to find a way to address this properly.

  7. David Lynch says:

    I can share this story with you, for what it’s worth. I have a client, who as part of his services compiles forensic reports about accidents and often testifies in court about his data and conclusions.

    He has closed his facebook account, and does not allow comments on his blog page. Why?

    Because in one case, a lawyer on the opposing side cited a comment someone made on his facebook page. The lawyer claimed the comment demonstrated prejudice on the part of my client!

    This was not my client’s comment, nor did he opine or remark on the comment that a facebook friend had posted on his wall. Still, it was enough to get his testimony thrown out of the case!

  8. Greg Hopkins says:

    What goes on the Internet, stays on the Internet. A lot of people don’t get that. Heck, in the name of humor, sometimes, I forget. The Internet can be a very bad neighborhood, if you are not careful. Once you take part in the Internet, you are exposed to the world. Be sure to put on your best underwear.

  9. I think you are very wise. I have heard of some forums owners being dragged to court kicking and screaming because of their moderating skills letting certain comments / stories through. The owners never thought it would happen to them.

  10. Scott says:

    Jonathan, I find it interesting that bloggers now have to waste energy separating that which can truly (and unfairly) harm from that which is simply unpleasant for the object of the comment to hear.

    Of course obviously slanderous (or just plain mean) comments should be edited but where is the line between those and observations that while reasonable, we don’t agree with?

    Are we really all so thin skinned we should sue because someone said something we don’t agree with about ourselves or if we agree, find unpleasant or uncomfortable?

  11. reese says:

    Ironic timing. I was just finishing up a disclosure page for my new site.

    I’ve never thought of this one from the legal point of view, but from an ethical point of view, I would be disinclined to allow such details on a blog. There’s something inherently private and unknown about the ‘whole story’ that charters into questionable integrity waters. But JF, you rock for putting this reminder out there.

  12. Annette says:

    I couldn’t agree more and thank you for being a responsible blogger. If I had seen those comments and seen you not do anything about it I would seriously question your integrity.

    Very important point and thanks for bringing this up.

    Annette

  13. Some people write a disclaimer on their blog, or a note saying that any or all comments are retained at the discretion of the blog owner.
    We must remember that just because something happens to be ‘true, as some things are, it does not make it any less hurtful, disgusting, annoying, injurious, distasteful or plain rude.
    So put a note on your blog saying that if anything is to your disliking, you reserve the right as blog owner to delete it.

  14. I totally agree with you! In fact, I just sent your link to someone else who writes a blog that I think might get her in serious trouble one day.

  15. Hi Jonathan,

    If a commentator gives off the wrong vibe I delete the comment.

    I am for debate, different viewpoints and such because you learn so much more about yourself and your belief system when someone shares an alternative viewpoint. With that in mind if the comment attacks somebody else it’s not adding value, and if it doesn’t add value to my blog it won’t show up on my blog.

    Rather than a commentator attack somebody else I’d suggest the person looks at their own shortcomings, for these emotions are the only reason to be negatively critical of someone. Mirror, mirror on the wall.

    Thanks for sharing and have a powerful day!

    Ryan

  16. Gillian says:

    I think it’s right to remove or edit comments that are insulting or offensive. It is completely possible to tell a story of any nature w/o naming names and identifying details. If a person wants to air laundry in that way then they are free to get their own blog, or Facebook page etc. Mine is mine and my rules rule.

  17. Evan Brown says:

    Federal law provides strong immunity to bloggers and other operators of “interactive computer services” against liability for content posted by third parties. (This immunity is found in the Communications Decency Act (47 U.S.C. 230)). The courts have been pretty clear that a website operator or ISP can’t be liable for most of the content that third parties may post. Most often this arises in the defamation context — an aggrieved target of vitriol will try to hold the website operator liable for what others have said. But if the offending content comes from a third party, the website operator is not responsible.

    There are exceptions to this, like for intellectual property infringement and criminal liability. The website operator, for example, may not be off the hook if his or her commenters are disclosing trade secrets, for example.

    But you raise a larger question, Jonathan, of pragmatism, i.e., whether you even want to put yourself at risk of having to fight about it. I often advise my clients that the appropriate question to ask yourself often is not, “Will this subject me to legal liability?” but “Do I want to put myself in a position to fight about this?”

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Evan, you nailed the real issue. Even if the law appears to favor bloggers and other website “owners,” that doesn’t necessarily stop people from taking legal action, even if they may be destined to lose. And, that means, at least in the U.S., you still incur the angst and cost of having to defend yourself. Other issue is that, since the content reaches into jurisdictions outside the U.S., who knows what other laws might apply?

  18. Alex says:

    What is the difference between posting a nasty review (or glowing for that matter) on a blog comment section or a review website like Yelp!?

  19. Elysia says:

    I totally agree.

    I think that on your blog, it’s your rules and if people aren’t willing to play nice, fear and respectful then they don’t get to play at all.

    Like Gillian said, there’s a way to put your point across and tell your grudge without dropping names and putting the publisher at risk!

  20. Tim says:

    It seems that we have crossed an intellectual line in our society. Not only on the internet but in the media as well. The distinction between discussion and facts are skewed as well as the ownership of who said what, and in what context.

    We have lost the art of discussion of ideas and replaced it with body blocks and character assassination.

  21. Thanks Jonathan, this will definitely make me look at my comments more carefully. Thanks also to David for his facebook story and Evan for the legal view (not that you were giving legal advice of course!).

    I also take a pragmatic view on whether it contributes to the debate. I’m happy for people to disagree with my views but comments about third parties …. not really on.

    Cathy

  22. Karri Flatla says:

    This post is a solid reminder to take ownership of what’s posted / commented on our blogs.

    I sort of look at running a blog like running a brick and mortar business where I have the right to refuse to “serve” someone.

    We forget that while blogs may be made available for public consumption they’re not a free-for-all.

    Cheers,
    Karri

  23. Hi Jonathan.

    Interesting point here that I had not thought of too much. I can see how it could be somewhat of a time-consuming issue if it came to a legal proceeding. Avoiding it in the first place sounds like a better plan than allowing possible problems to arise, so I think your method of comment deletion is suitable.

    No one wants to be brought into someone elses’ mess through some indirect communication.

  24. Dear Jonathan –

    This is an important post. Even if we are not liable it costs a lot to defend a nuisance suit.

    I had an employee (who owed me money) sue me for “making her nervous.”

    My business liablility insurance paid for the defense luckily but it cost a lot of time to go to court and depositions etc.

    (I can think of a lot of people I could sue for making nervous. What about you?)
    At the end the judge threw out the case.

  25. PS I correct people’s spelling on my blog comments all the time. They are just in a hurry and don’t check it before they hit submit.

    I don’t tell them. Just do it. Hope others do it for me.

  26. You too? I’ve seen this happen also — I don’t publish them since they’re not relevant to the post.

  27. Scott says:

    The litigious nature of American culture makes this issue so much more difficult because the line between defamation and opinion has become so blurred, especially in the last two decades. Its impossible to argue against the constitutional right we each have to free speech, but a different conversation occurs when the rhetoric takes on that acerbic, attacking, biting tone.

    Now where was that self-control I just had in my hand . . .

  28. Dino Herbert says:

    Jonathan,

    Given that you are publisher of your blog, I think you did the right thing. In fact, it was downright decent of you to take the time to edit the post and send a personal email explaining your actions. You went above and beyond the call of duty, in my opinion. It would have been quite understandable to hit the DELETE button. Legal issues notwithstanding, you have a right to monitor which sentiments are associated with your name. Imagine NBC news reporting, “…. as posted on Jonathan Fields’ blog….”

    Thanks for the post.

    Dino Herbert
    “Passionate about helping people reach their entrepreneurial potential”

  29. Mark Kelly says:

    Very wise Jonathan it’s risk mitigation and easy mitigation at that you have nothing to gain by publishing that stuff and potentially something to lose so its an easy equation.

  30. Feature film DVDs have that clear disclaimer about opinions expressed are not those of the film company, etc. Last night on The Defenders a blogger being sued brought up the differences between laws that cover journalistic protection and internet media. Since bloggers are essentially on their own, smart editing is vital.

  31. Vee Sweeney says:

    This brings me back to a story that was all over the place a couple months ago regarding how attorneys are using Facebook, Twitter and even blog comments in divorce proceedings. While this is a different sort of animal, I also believe you did the right thing. Even if you or the blog itself were not dragged into it in one sense, I am thinking the risk may pop up of having to provide documentation or files relating to the comments and it is better to just stay out of it all together.

  32. Scott says:

    Thank you Counselor. Just starting out blogging I’ve always got this thought lingering overhead about not only what’s written but the pictures used. In my niche (health) I’m thinking about taking pictures at sporting events. My question is not so much for my subject but the bystanders or others that may be caught in the camera lense eye. I’ll have to visit Darren’s photo blog and learn how to blur all but the subject. Not looking for free legal advice, just sharing where different legal issues I think could come from.
    I’m probably more paranoid about this subject because of my current heathcare “employment”. Talk to any doctor about malpractice insurance.
    Thanks again for the warning.
    Scott

  33. Great post and correcting people’s spelling on posts are a great thing to do not only for yourself but for the person posting the comment. You did the right thing Jonathan!
    Thanks for this important information!\
    Nancy

  34. […] friend pointed me in the direction of an interesting article over at http://jonathanfields.com about whether someone else’s comments, on your blog, can land you in court. Interesting […]

  35. Tyson says:

    Jonathan, I tried to provide some answers over on my blog at http://socialmediaesq.com

    You raised an interesting topic and I hope you find my response informative.

  36. @Deirdre

    I so agree. As bloggers we are responsible in everything that we publish online. And comments from our readers are our responsibility too. I edited my readers’ comments for the benefits of the commenter, other readers, and my blog.

  37. Phys says:

    I am certainly responsible for what I say, but certainly not for what the reaction of my reader is as he provides his comment.
    Also a sense of freedom of speech cannot allow me to censor it only because he disagrees with me.
    Unless he transgresses certain essential limits, racist etc.

  38. I’ve got to thank for this post. I run a couple of blogs, one of which is a free job site for employers and applicants. I’ve published some pretty inflammatory comments against an employer thinking that’ll generate some buzz and traffic. It just never occurred to me that I could be held liable for them. You are right. Our blogs are ours so we should also be responsible for the comments.

    Thanks for this. You’re insight is a golden nugget that I’ll have to bookmark for future use.